Monthly Archive: May 2016

Television show

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit, which will be ripe in a week or two

The prickly pear is in flower

The prickly pear is in flower

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed

 

At five o’clock this morning, Husband returned from an evening trip to Lisbon. He had gone along with other concerned local citizens to be in the audience of a TV debate called Prós e Contras, this week featuring the arguments for and against the exploration for oil in the Algarve. I didn’t go, mostly because of work demands, but also because at certain points in life my natural reserve holds me back. Not so Husband, who is, by the way, a heckler supreme.

So the plucky group from the Algarve entered the studio, having registered for seats, and found themselves outnumbered by an audience of extras, paid a small sum to be there instead of by their televisions at home, and exhorted at the beginning not to rustle their sweet papers too loudly. In the front rows were a number of key witnesses, including one ‘Algarvian citizen’ (whose Facebook page reveals him to be a geologist living in Cascais, Lisbon) who appeared so clearly to be an oil industry plant that even the moderator was taken aback, and remarked that he must to be the only ‘Algarvian’ in favour of oil exploration.

On one side of the panel, the grinning villain Paulo Carmona of the national fuel entity (ENMC) and two industry cohorts, who barely assembled a convincing argument between them. On the other side, two Algarvian mayors, of Tavira and Aljezur, and Vítor Neto, the president of NERA (association of tourism entrepreneurs in the Algarve), whose arguments ranged around quality of life, the beauty of the natural environment and by the way the fantastic contribution to the Portuguese public purse made by the tourism industry of the Algarve.

All familiar arguments, nothing I hadn’t heard before, and of course you know my stance. So I shall leave you with two observations. A brilliant lawyer, who was one of the witnesses, pointed out that the 1994 law on which many of the oil contracts were based was a retrograde step in environmental protection, overruling earlier laws, in order to open Portugal up for business, which makes sense for the era. (I’d given those lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, that the evidence for man-made climate change wasn’t powerful enough – even though it was powerful enough really. Anyway, I was wrong.) A 2013 law, which demands public consultation and environmental impact studies, is routinely ignored by the likes of Paulo Carmona; they prefer to tread the easier ground of the 1994 decree. And the second: a geologist and former oil-industry employee stepped up to say that fracking was pretty safe, and the chemical contamination of local water supplies was at barely half a percent, at which point Husband shouted, ‘You drink it then!’ (In Portuguese, naturally.)

The show has at-home audience participation in the form of a voting system. At the end, the passionate arguments for wellbeing, beauty and sustainability won: 68 per cent of the voters said No to oil in the Algarve. The coach-load of Algarvian ‘Indios’ was in party mood on the way home.

Water

The river is clear and serene again. Fish jump to catch the insects dancing on the water surface. I only hear three turtles dive in off the rocks when I approach, instead of the eight I had become accustomed to. I wonder if some of them took the chance of high water to go exploring, or got swept away to new shores against their will. Ducks disappear on my approach too: they whoosh creakily into the air and flap off. Last year we accidentally disturbed a nesting duck, who shuffled away with wounded wing, tempting us with an easy target. We left her alone, of course, and anyway we knew she was faking it to distract us from her ducklings. These are the familiar Mallards, but wild ones, not the bread-entreating kind we find in cities.

We took delivery of five lorry-loads of water this week – for our pool. The men came round pre-delivery to assess the site. They needed to choose between their big and their little truck.

‘The concrete bridge has a weight limit of nine tons,’ said Husband, who tends to obey rules, and whose hecklerism doesn’t arise out of disdain for them.

‘Oh, we can’t read,’ said one man, nudging the other.

When we returned home at the end of the water delivery day, we were happy to see the bridge was still there.

Today we had an unscheduled visit from the câmara, who examined the pool and the surrounds and declared it all good, and said our pool licence would be with us within a week to ten days. The pool was only just complete and we hadn’t even had the chance to swim in it. So, after they’d gone, we swam for the first time in the pale jade water. We looked at the hills all around us, and decided there could be no greater joy than this.

The pool

The pool

Fancy a dip?

Fancy a dip?

 

Oil and water

River at its peak this week

River at its peak this week

Another view of the swollen river

Another view of the swollen river

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode this week

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode

 

It carried on raining for a few more days. Our river got higher and browner and swirlier. We went to Tavira on Thursday and the tea-coloured river was brimming. It was freshly poured Assam, with a dash of milk, the surface still moving after having just been stirred.

Then on Sunday it began to turn into the May we expect. The sun shone brightly and the days warmed up. The water in the river reduced and turned clear. We filled our cisterna from the well, which was more full than we’d ever seen it. Crystal water gushed into the cisterna and showed no sign of faltering; after three hours and twenty minutes we decided it was enough. The over-large cisterna – 30,000 litres – that supplies the house was almost at capacity. I continue to filter and boil the water for drinking, then chill it. It’s a chore, but not only does it save a little money, it also avoids acres of plastic waste. Best of all, our water tastes heavenly. It’s the most delicious water ever.

The streaky yellow serin continues to punctuate our days at home with its break-neck song. It sways from side to side, for the broadest possible cast of its notes. It resists my attempts to get near to photograph it.

Prime minister and priest

On Saturday the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, came to Loulé, a nearby town, for a Socialist Party meeting. Naturally enough, the various activist groups gathered at the site to let their feelings known. We were there – Husband, Mother and me – as part of the Tavira em Transicão (TT) group, waving anti-oil banners. I wore my protest hat. My protest hat is not entirely successful. A few months ago Husband and I made ‘protest selfies’, and I adapted a pink trilby for the occasion. I fancied a Mad Hatter look, so I stuck letters around the brim. The hat remained on the hat stand in the hall until my eyes alighted on it as we leaving on Saturday. I thought it might serve the purpose for Loulé so I grabbed it and put it in the car.

When we got there, Mum took a restful position on a concrete bench at the back of the protesters, TT banner aloft. It was in this slightly out-of-the-way spot that she managed to be caught by a TV camera and thus made an appearance on Portuguese television news. The islanders – the people of Culatra and other sand-bank islands who are protesting against the demolitions taking place there – made the biggest splash. All in black t-shirts, marching in a group, they chanted ‘Ilhéus unidos jamais serão vencidos’ as they got into position. The chant was picked up on our side with ‘Ilhéus’ changed to ‘Algarve’, and the islanders joined back in with us.

‘Algarve unidos jamais serão vencidos!’ A united Algarve will never be defeated!

I glanced back at my mum. She was wiping away a tear from her eye. Her first demonstration, and she found it very moving.

PM Costa arrived and, to my surprise, and I imagine others’ too, he went around the ranks of protestors, smiling and talking to people. I waved and grinned as he came in our direction and he made his way towards me. Panic settled on my face at the thought that he might talk to me and catch me out as a non-Portuguese speaker. The letters on my hat had by now rearranged themselves, several slithering down into the hatband, and no longer read ‘FRACK OFF’ but the rather less effective ‘RACK’. My disconcerted features and my ambiguous hat were enough to deter the PM, who moved on to talk to someone else. He then invited a representative group to talk to him within the building. (See Asmaa’s site for an account of this.)

Mass on Sunday capped an emotional weekend. It was Pentecost, the last day of Easter, and my mum was keen to celebrate at a Portuguese church. I’d been told that Mass started around eleven. After coffee and pasteis at the café amid the sound of church bells, we entered the church at ten to eleven and selected prime pews, aisle-side for easy access to Holy Communion. Eleven o’clock came and went. I have still not learned the lesson that the start time means the time the people who are involved start to gather and get ready. Microphones were placed on the altar and two pulpits. A multimedia screen was lowered from the ceiling. A group of children – boy and girl scouts who were to take part in the service, with much obvious stage direction from the priest, and to receive special blessings – were photographed in front of the altar. The image was soon on display via the screen above. Old Portuguese ladies descended on our pew in a pincer action, squeezing us into the middle. The church slowly filled. Plastic chairs were being brought in to supplement the pews. The Mass finally got under way at about quarter to twelve. My mother likes Portuguese time, and is thinking of introducing it to Father John back in Lincolnshire.

Mandai, Senhor, o vosso Espírito e renovai a Terra

was one of the responses during the Mass. ‘Send your spirit, Lord, and renew the earth.’ We could do with some of that, I thought, and found myself wondering if the priest is up to speed with the oil exploration plans for the Algarve.

The protest trilby

The protest trilby

Husband's walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated bread by carrying in a loaf, wine with a bottle, music by holding aloft a guitar, and love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek to face the congregation

Husband’s delicious walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated the riches of life: Bread, by carrying in a loaf, Wine with a wine bottle, Music by holding aloft a guitar, and Love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek so as to face outwards to the congregation

Rain

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

The same flower the next day, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

The same flower the next morning, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the 'undulate margin' of the 'stalkless and hairy' leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the ‘undulate margin’ of the ‘stalkless and hairy’ leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

The river in spate

The river in spate this week

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

The unfordable ford

The unfordable ford

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ I didn’t realise this old saying was about the Algarve. A week ago I cast a clout in the form of a thick, winter duvet, replacing it with a light one, and woke up cold the next morning. The sky was dark and a storm was about to discharge itself all over the valley. By midday we had the fire lit and the lights on. The rain came down in sheets all day, and the next day, and one week later it is still raining.

‘We’ll be all right for water in the summer,’ said Eleuterio with a smile.

‘It’s like gold in the bank,’ said an acquaintance in the village.

The river is wide and flowing fast, its colour turned to brown. We can’t ford it in this condition. It even deterred Horse. We got a phone call from his owner to say he’d gone AWOL again and I went down to the river to look for him, but no sign. He returned to his stable later the same day. I think he must have got to the river and been spooked by the swirling torrent, so decided to pass up on his holiday for a while. I do feel sorry for any tourists who picked this week for their dose of sunshine. And much as we love the rain, I hope it eventually eases off for our next guest, my mother, who is arriving on Thursday.

São Brás de Alportel

We attended another open meeting on the prospects for the Algarve if the oil industry arrives here. This one took place in the museum of our local town of São Brás, and was well attended, all seats taken and some people standing. Most of the audience were Portuguese, only a few foreigners were there, one of whom, a disgruntled Scotsman, identified himself very early on. The presentations were given by a solar energy expert and two hardworking members of the PALP group (Plataforma Algarve Livre de Petróleo). The no-brainer energy solution that solar is for the Algarve is clear – a week like this one notwithstanding – and it was the solar engineer who spoke first. It was uncontroversial material for the audience, except for the Scotsman, who, only five minutes into an event that was to last three hours, stood up and declared it was all rubbish, all lies, and he knew what he was talking about because he used to work for the oil industry. He marched out, his stout frame quivering with indignation, and the presentation carried on without a hiccup. If he felt he really had a case, why didn’t he stay to make it?

Many passionate speeches were made by members of the audience. One or two went on longer than seemed to me entirely necessary, but that’s how it goes. I was moved by the man who spoke up for the natural industries of the Algarve: its world-beating cork, its super-carbon-soaking carob trees. And I was impressed by the town mayor who stood up at the end of the presentations and promised to put himself physically in front of any machines that come here with the aim of exploring for oil. That’s going to be harder to do at sea, mind you.

Our solar energy production at home has carried on without any hitch despite the weather. The electricity company (EDP) have been to disconnect their meter, though we are not entirely free of them yet. We have a second meter, put in to supply three-phase electricity for the bread oven; we are going to switch this to a greener provider. As well as being needed for the bread oven, it’s also a back-up for the rest of the house, but we have little recourse to it. Through our photo-voltaic panels and battery storage, we are supplying about 90 per cent of our own energy: free after the cost of installation, renewable and clean. All thanks to the blessed sun, even on cloudy days.

Here's a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. It will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

Here’s a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. The pool will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water from evaporation, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

The self-made man – undone?

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda . . .

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium Angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We'd never seen a lizard of this size before. The photo also serves to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We’d never seen a lizard of this size before. Its arrival also served to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

 

When you hear a whistle at your back, a sharp, clear Fee fee-ooo, of course you turn to see who is calling you. It turns out to be the Golden Oriole, whose fluty call is one of the dominant sounds of the valley right now. The bird is about the size of a blackbird; the male is brilliantly yellow with black wings, the female drabber in olive and yellow. Despite the gloss-paint shine of the male bird, he is well concealed in sunlit leafy trees. A couple are often in our back garden and might be nesting there.

Sousa Cintra heard a whistle at his back this week. He has finally been stopped from drilling on a site in Perdigão in the western Algarve. Under guise of drilling for water he was covertly, and slightly ludicrously, engaged in oil exploration. Activists had been monitoring the site, where chemical froth was pooling on the land and running into a nearby stream. A geologist employed by Portfuel – Cintra’s hastily put together ‘oil’ company – was found to have been on site for much of the time; a hardly necessary appointment had Cintra simply been drilling for the water. In a joint action of planning and environment agencies, along with the GNR (the national republican guard), Cintra was told on 27 April to suspend the work.

On 28 April, Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-Minister for the Environment, faced a joint hearing of the parliamentary committees on environment and economy about the onshore oil concessions in the Algarve. He continued to make the mutually-self-cancelling defences that the contracts are for exploration only, and that the people of the Algarve deserve the wealth and the development opportunities that oil will provide. He said that all the fuss about the oil was being kicked up by retired foreigners who wanted to preserve the Algarve as ‘uma terra de índios’: a land of indigenous poor people. As a politician’s view of the people of the Algarve, it’s revealing. Until 1911 when Portugal became a republic, the country was known as ‘the kingdom of Portugal and the Algarve’, and this sense of the Algarve as being ‘other’ seems to prevail.

The money argument is a difficult one. The idea that oil brings wealth is deeply embedded in human culture. However, even if you kick all the environmental arguments into the long grass and pretend that it’s still a good idea to dig up Mother Nature’s fossil fuels, it isn’t going to make Portugal rich. If you compare the planned payments to the public purse of the explorations in Portugal with those of, for example, Norway, the difference is startling. The Portuguese concessions must pay, after all their expenses have been recovered, 3 per cent (to begin with); in Norway it’s 80 per cent. And by the way, why have the payment terms been stipulated when the contracts are ‘only for exploration’?

But we cannot kick the environmental arguments into the long grass. The law which allowed these oil concessions to be awarded is dated 1994, not so long ago in human years, but aeons ago in human consciousness. We emphatically know the risks of global warming now that we only suspected then, and we have dangers now that we’d barely dreamt of then, such as fracking, and its release of methane gas, even worse than carbon dioxide. And we are compelled to act upon this new knowledge. Or we should be, especially if we are the Minister for the Environment. But not so Moreira da Silva.

Then, just to show that he truly is shameless, we learnt that he stood for the post of executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He reached the last two in the competition. He didn’t get the gig; it went to Mexican Patricia Espinosa instead. Small mercies.

The local mayoral organisation, who are vocal in their condemnation of the contracts given to Sousa Cintra to explore for oil onshore, are less vocal about the offshore concessions, which are due to start activities in October this year. That’s a whole other battle.

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